LOWVILLE — Two state legislators want to hold internet service providers subject to the same rules and regulations that power companies must follow.
State Sen. Sean M. Ryan, D-Buffalo, and Assembly member Nily Rozic, D-Queens, visited Lewis County on Monday to hear feedback from local officials on their proposal, the NY Broadband Resiliency, Public Safety and Quality Act.
The legislation, currently working its way through Assembly and Senate committees in Albany, would allow the New York State Public Service Commission to oversee and regulate the companies that provide broadband and voice-over internet protocol (voIP) service in the state.
It would position internet access as another “public good” like electricity, phone service or running water — a service that is essential to operating in modern society.
“Working with Senator Ryan, we put together legislation that would put together this oversight structure, just like any other utility, so that New Yorkers won’t have to worry, we’ll have universal, good quality broadband,” Ms. Rozic said.
At Monday’s meeting, Mr. Ryan and Ms. Rozic heard from representatives of the state comptroller’s office, the Lowville Free Library, a local communication workers union, the Development Authority of the North Country and the Lewis County administration, to take their input on what needs to be done to improve internet access in the north country.
“We’re here to learn about what’s going on in Lewis County and the Adirondacks, and inform the legislation,” Ms. Rozic said.
Most of the local officials said access is one of the biggest issues they face. Lewis County Manager Ryan Piche said about 49% of county residents have no broadband access at all, and can only get service via cell networks or satellite connection. That’s at odds with official counts from the state and federal governments, which say about 98% of New Yorkers statewide have access to broadband internet.
According to Michael Lefebvre, who works with the state comptroller’s Budget and Policy Analysis office, 98% of New Yorkers have access to broadband internet, but rural counties in New York can see up to 23% of their population without access to broadband at all.
Nick Hoh, a broadband brigade member and a member of the Communications Workers of America Local 1104, said that number is likely inflated.
“We don’t feel it’s accurate,” he said. “That’s based on census blocks, so if a very small bit of that census block is wired for broadband, they consider the entire block wired, and that’s where the number becomes inflated.”
Mr. Hoh said he’s interested to see what the PSC does with its current mandate to get a much more accurate count of addresses with broadband access. Mr. Ryan and Ms. Rozic were the architects of the law requiring the PSC to undertake that count last year.
“We’ve been struggling statewide with this idea that nearly everyone is covered, but that never seemed to really compute with my discussions with people in the community,” he said. “I guess we kind of fell for it for a while, that we had this broad coverage.”
Mr. Hoh added that modern definitions of broadband coverage have aged as well, with speeds of 25 megabytes-per-second of download speed being considered high-speed broadband.
“That’s not going to go far,” he said, suggesting that broadband should be defined with a faster speed in the future.
Mr Piche also said the county runs into problems expanding coverage in rural areas. He said the county is currently looking at a project to expand broadband to 91 residents, at a cost of $6,100 per resident.
“That is exorbitantly high,” he said. “We’re having that debate now, is it worth our taxpayers dollars to fund them?”
Mr. Ryan said his proposed bill would give the PSC the authority to order internet service providers to roll out internet access to all address of a certain area, similar to how they ordered power and phone companies to provide access to all customers in a certain region if they want to sell to that market.
Allowing the PSC to regulate internet providers would also give the commission the ability to hold internet service providers accountable for the services they provide and the errors that occur. The PSC could mandate that the provider pay a fee and discount customers bills for extended service outages, and could mandate that providers offer proof of they speeds they’re charging residents for.
Mr. Piche said, when Lewis County completed its broadband access survey, they found many residents were concerned about high prices and low quality.
Over 40% of those who said they do have internet access said they pay $75 or more per month for a service that is often slow or unreliable, but is their only viable option.
“I think that’s the biggest issue, price, but also quality,” said Mr. Ryan. “I think a lot of my constituents in Buffalo are paying their monthly fee for something that’s unreliable, and when it comes time to download your homework you can’t sit and wait.”
Mr. Piche expressed concern with Mr. Ryan’s and Ms. Rozic’s plans, however. He said he has some concerns with adding in another state agency to regulate internet access on top of the agencies already involved, like the Departments of Transportation and Environmental Conservation.
“The DOT and the DEC already make things harder to develop,” he said. “We can’t treat every square inch of real estate in New York like it’s Manhattan, we don’t have that population density and people are not going to pay those fees in order to develop up here.”
Mr. Ryan said he understands those concerns, but pointed to how the PSC manages electricity in New York as an example of how it will regulate internet access.
“When we get home from school, we turn the lights on, it’s a reliable service,” he said. “And if the power goes out, it’s not you fighting the power company, it’s the Public Service Commission. So we’ve had a very unregulated system in New York since the inception of the internet, and things have not gotten better for communities in New York state.”
Ms. Rozic said a clear, pointed mandate for the PSC to regulate internet companies should only make it easier and more equitable for residents to get access to high-speed, quality internet.
Both legislators said they have seen internet service providers expend an enormous amount of effort to halt regulations or programs meant to improve internet access, and they anticipate they will experience similar pushback with this bill.
“It makes sense for them to fight this bill,” Mr. Ryan said. “Right now, they’re allowed to take money out of the pockets of all New Yorkers with no oversight.”